It was never intended to be a grand political statement. In fact, members of the Pflugerville ISD board weren’t aware that the district was about to take a step that would be a noteworthy first in Texas: the extension of insurance benefits to domestic partners by a school district.
The issue first drew attention in October, when the district’s insurance benefits advisory committee—a group of school employees—recommended that the district offer the benefit. The district administration agreed with the change, a move that put Pflugerville ISD in a group of approximately 200 cities, counties, other municipalities, and school districts nationwide that offer the benefit to same-sex and opposite-sex couples in long-term, unmarried relationships.
The district self-funds its health insurance plan and only pays for employee coverage. Employees pay insurance premiums for family members. The same rule applies to domestic partners. “We did it because we believe in treating everyone equally…Our job is to take care of the Pflugerville family. And that’s how we see our employees: as family,” Trustee Carol Fletcher told the Austin American-Statesman.
Weighing public opinion
The board had a standing-room only crowd at its next meeting, with members of the public speaking both for and against the decision. Trustees couldn’t comment on the change because it wasn’t on the meeting’s agenda. Public opinion was divided, with more community members speaking in favor of the change than opposing it.
Prior to the meeting, Superintendent Charles Dupre was staunch in his defense of the change when he spoke to the Statesman. “It’s not about a political statement…other than making a statement of how much we value every member of our school district,” Dupre said. Dupre and the board were strongly criticized by conservatives, including Texas Values President Jonathan Saenz and Cathie Adams of the Texas Eagle Forum who contended that the decision was a “power grab” and was out of sync with the community’s values.
The change also drew attention from state leaders. State Sen. Dan Patrick (R-Houston) sent a letter to Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott requesting an opinion on whether the change violated the Texas Constitution’s definition of marriage by legally recognizing a domestic partnership to provide benefits to same-sex partners.
Going on the record
In December, Trustee Jimmy Don Havins asked for the issue to be put on the board’s agenda and said that he planned to make a motion to revert to the previous coverage, which did not include benefits for unmarried partners. That would put board members on the record with an up or down vote on the issue.
On Dec. 13, the board upheld the administration’s decision to start offering the benefits in a 5 to 1 vote (one board member abstained). “We’ve worked really hard in this district to teach our students that every person has value and deserves to be treated with dignity,” Fletcher told the Statesman. “It means everyone. There are no exceptions to our policy. This is just good business.”
Five employees signed up to cover a domestic partner during the enrollment period. Those employees were required to sign an affidavit stating that they have shared a permanent residence for at least a year and provide at least two of the following: a joint lease, mortgage, or deed; joint ownership of a vehicle; joint ownership of banking or credit card accounts; or proof of a power of attorney or a will attesting to the domestic partner as a beneficiary for life insurance.
Attorney General Abbott has not yet ruled on whether government entities can grant same-sex couples the same benefits offered to married employees. Three Texas cities—El Paso, Austin, and Fort Worth—also offer domestic partner benefits, and could be affected by Abbott’s ruling.
—“Pflugerville ISD to offer benefits for domestic partners,” by Melissa B. Taboada, Austin American-Statesman, Oct. 7, 2012.
—“Pflugerville schools same-sex benefits policy draws a crown Thursday night,” by Melissa B. Taboada, Austin American-Statesman, Oct. 18, 2012.
—“Pflugerville school board votes to keep benefits for domestic partners,” by Melissa B. Taboada, Austin American-Statesman, Dec. 13, 2012.